UConn Spring Game: Five Takeaways

Johnny McEntee was the Huskies quarterback during 2011.

The Connecticut Huskies annual Blue-White Spring game took place April 21 at Rentschler Field. Conventional scoring was used with 20-minute, running-time quarters. The teams were divided with a mix of both starters and reserves, as opposed to first team vs. second team. Offense and defensive coaches switched sidelines with each change in possession. The Blue team took the early lead with a short field goal and a safety, but the White team held the halftime lead 7-5, and ultimately prevailed 14-5.

Here's a few observations taken away from UConn spring game:

1. Quarterbacks

The Huskies began last season with four quarterbacks: Johnny McEntee (senior walk-on), Scott McCummings (redshirt sophomore) and Michael Nebrich (sophomore). Another, Michael Box, who had seen playing time under former head coach Randy Edsall, lost out in the competition and transferred to Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Throughout the 2011 season, the coaches never named a first-string quarterback, though McEntee (of YouTube trick shot fame) started and saw most of the playing time. McCummings commonly played in a wildcat formation, and Nebrich was a essentially bench warmer after losing his redshirt status against FCS Fordham in the opening game.

In 2012 there are five quarterbacks. McEntee, McCummings and Nebrich are joined by two-time Connecticut Gatorade High School Player of the Year, Casey Cochran (greyshirt freshman), and JUCO transfer Chandler Whitmer, who has three year of eligibility left after originally committing to the University of Illinois.

Throughout the spring reports were that each quarterback was receiving the same number of repetitions in practices and no one was a frontrunner. In the spring game, with McCummings injured, the other quarterbacks had two quarters of work each, in an offensive game plan heavy with passing plays. Whitmer was unquestionably the best performer (18 for 27, 187 yards, two touchdowns, one interception), but after the game the coaches remained noncommittal about a first-string quarterback.

In fairness to McCummings, who did not have the opportunity to audition, and the other four, the coaching staff is not obliged to reveal its starter to the media before it notifies the players. That said, head coach Paul Pasqualoni and offensive coordinator George DeLeone will not be able to play coy after 5,500 fans saw Whitmer's performance compared to the others (combined: 14 of 38 passes, 138 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions).

It seems inevitable that Whitmer gets the nod, with either Nebrich or McCummings on the two-deep. McEntee likely will be content to complete his degree and career as a quarterback on the roster and, hopefully, Cochran will redshirt as a legitimate heir apparent.

Don’t be surprised with a transfer out of program from a quarterback who finds the bottom of the depth chart.

2. Running backs and offensive line

Unlike the quarterback situation, Lyle McCombs (1,100 yards and freshman FWAA All American in 2011) is solid as the starting tailback. Senior D.J. Shoemate, a transfer from USC, announced the end of his career this week with a shoulder injury. Martin Hyppolite (redshirt junior) will likely be the backup but greyshirt freshman Joe Williams has impressed throughout the spring practice session and Connecticut native Max DeLorenzo (redshirt freshman) presents a true power option between the tackles.

Another pleasant development is another Connecticut player, fullback Michael Osiecki (redshirt sophomore), who had four catches for 33 yards in the spring game. A pass-catching fullback has been absent from the UConn lineup in recent seasons and adds an important dimension to the offense.

Because of key injuries and the manner in which the teams were divided, the offensive line play in the spring game was not at its optimum. This unit probably would receive the lowest grade for the spring game, but it would not be a fair judgment because of the split squads. Alex Mateas (redshirt sophomore transfer from Penn State) seems likely to receive the starting job at center if playing on the white team with Whitmer and Nebrich were any hint.

3. Receivers

For all the criticism of the quarterbacks last season, there was a limitation (depth and experience) at wide receiver that was a contributing factor to their inability to stretch the field regularly. Senior Michael Smith is back from a year of academic ineligibility and appeared ready to demonstrate his speed and catching skills. Shakim Phillips (redshirt sophomore, transfer from Boston College) had a productive spring game, especially with Whitmer under center, and senior Nick Williams led all receivers with six catches. Redshirt sophomores Tebucky Jones and Geremy Davis (injured) should be regular contributors, and converted running back Deshon Foxx (sophomore) is a speedster. Bryce McNeal, a transfer from Clemson, is due before training camp and should help the vertical dimension of the receiving corps.

The two spring game touchdowns were caught by tight ends: John Delahunt (senior) and Connecticut native Sean McQuillan (redshirt freshman). Together with senior starter Ryan Griffin and incoming JUCO transfer Neil Shortell, the Huskies have real depth at the position.

4. Defense

UConn essentially played a base defense throughout the game, despite the propensity toward the pass. Redshirt freshman David Stevenson had two interceptions and 10 tackles. He seems likely, along with Taylor Mack, to see playing time behind the starting cornerbacks. Another pleasant surprise was defensive tackle Ryan Wirth. With the departures of tackles Kendall Reyes a Twyon Martin, Wirth’s 4.5 sacks give encouragement, even if against a diminished offensive line. Shamar Stephen, a redshirt junior, also seems poised to start on the inside of the line.

The defense fairly dominated throughout the game. This unit under second-year coordinator Don Brown could decide UConn’s 2012 fortunes.

5. Special Teams

Chad Christen, last year’s kickoff specialist, was one for two in field goal attempts and is likely to be challenged during training camp by incoming freshman Bobby Puyol. Punter Cole Wagner was steady in the spring game. He had more than a dozen attempts, punting for both teams. Nick Williams broke a big return on the opening kickoff. Taylor Mack and Deshon Foxx appear to be the 2012 punt returners.

Summary

As the Huskies conclude their spring session, there should be fewer worries and questions in the minds of fans regarding the quarterback and receiver positions. The defense looks strong particularly among linebackers and defensive backs, with much promise on the line. The offensive line remains a question mark, but there is adequate depth and experience that the unit should be sound.

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